New app helps active women understand menstrual cycle for best possible training

When Olympic swimmer Allison Schmitt was 20 years old, doctors advised her to have an intrauterine device implanted to help with her anemia. A naturally inquisitive person, she said that the only question she could muster at the time was "Can I still have babies later in life?"

The doctors said yes, so she went ahead with the procedure. When she had the IUD removed eight years later, the procedure put her into an emotional and physical spiral, even as the planned 2020 Tokyo Olympics loomed.

"Once I got it out, I went through mental health struggles and I was bleeding more than I wasn't bleeding, simply because I didn't understand what it was doing to my body," said Schmitt in a recent interview. "When I had it out for three to four months I was like — I've never been pregnant so I don't know what it feels like — but my body swelled up and I thought I was pregnant."

After consulting with a USA Swimming trainer, she was referred to the team at FitrWoman, a new free app that helps physically active and athletic women track their menstrual cycles. That group of sport scientists reassured Schmitt that her body was just adjusting its progesterone levels and would eventually balance itself out.

"This is normal. This is what happens to your body. But I thought I was crazy, I thought it wasn't normal," said Schmitt, who went on to win two medals at the Tokyo Games that were rescheduled to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. "I was even trying to Google this and I remember reading on Reddit about how other people experienced it and I was like 'why is it only on one site and this is like a blog.'

"Just being able to hear the science and understand that from the FitrWoman team, it really helped me be more at ease."

Dr. Jessica Freemas, one of the scientists behind the app, said that Schmitt's experience is not uncommon. She said that her hope is for people with ovaries to be better educated about all four phases of the menstrual cycle and more comfortable talking about those stages.

"It's very much about creating your own knowledge based off your own body awareness and using that to your advantage to support proactive management of symptoms," said Freemas, who has also worked with Canadian professional sports teams. "How to strategize so that you can be at your best any day and train, especially if you know you're going to have low back pain."

Freemas said one of her goals is to raise awareness of all four stages of the menstrual cycle — menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase — and help take the emphasis off the period. That starts with demystifying the cycle through education and conversation.

"Creating a community of women or girls taking ownership of their body and learning about themselves," said Freemas. "Being empowered to ask questions about themselves and not just be put on a certain contraceptive that might not be right for them but to ask questions and really have that knowledge and an empowered decision in formative decision making."

Schmitt, who has won four golds, three silvers, and two bronzes over three Olympics for the United States, said that FitrWoman had an immediate impact on how she trained and continues to be active.

"You have recipes on it, you have resources sent out to you based on your symptoms," said Schmitt, noting that the app could also be helpful for men who want to help the women in their life with their menstrual cycle. "We've changed it to have positive and negative symptoms, again, to change that narrative about your period that it's not just a negative, that you can really use your period to, bring out your superpowers, I like to say."

Schmitt recently earned her masters of social work from Arizona State University and said that tracking her menstrual cycle and educating herself about its ups and downs has also helped her in her new career.

"It's being more aware of my own body and also seeing other peoples' stages of life," said Schmitt. "It's really helped me give more grace, to both myself but also to other people."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 11, 2023.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press